Sheril Cohen set out to make things easier for cancer victims in need of wigs
By Stephanie Earls


Saturday, November 20, 2004

She was the girl with the hair. Truly, it was amazing, enviable hair. It cascaded over her shoulders and curled at the small of her back, coal-black and thick enough to stop traffic or maybe even bullets. It was cheerleader hair, prom queen hair, and Sheril Cohen knew it.

Then, in October of 2000, Cohen, an Albany native living in Manhattan and working on Wall Street, was diagnosed with cancer. A few months later, she learned that her treatment would involve radiation and chemotherapy.

The broadside method of such treatments often means that healthy cells -- including those that make up hair follicles -- are destroyed along with cancerous cells. There was a good chance Cohen would lose at least some of her glorious hair. Maybe all of it.

Cut it off, she was told. Shave it before it comes out in clumps, so the change won't be too shocking. Flippant advice for a thing that rattled Cohen to her core.

"You've got cancer and you're devastated, but it comes down to: 'Oh, my God, my hair! I don't want to lose my hair,' said Cohen. "You feel guilty about it, but that's what you think."

Get a wig, they said, so she started looking. She soon learned wigs as long as her natural hair were hard to come by, at least for under $5,000. Then came the shopping.

"There was no room in the try-on rooms. Nowhere to put your coats, no room for my sisters," said Cohen, who hit wig shops in New York City with her two sisters. "I just felt herded like cattle. First of all, this is a terrible thing to have to do, and then it's this uncomfortable experience."

Some shops devoted only small back rooms to their wigs, with nowhere private and comfortable to try them on. Other shops, Cohen felt, were impersonal, too rushed, harshly lit. Online wig shopping didn't allow her to get a feel of what the hair really looked like on her head. The wigs themselves were never quite right.

"I did find one that was cute, but no matter how many times the salon attendant or my sisters said, 'Oh, you look cute,' I didn't care," said Cohen. "I didn't look like me."

Eventually, Cohen found a wig she could live with, and after 13 painful months of chemo, radiation, immunotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, she was declared cancer-free. She returned to her old Wall Street job, only to find that women -- friends, and friends of friends -- began seeking her out for advice about wig shopping following a cancer diagnosis.

Cohen found her mind wandering to thoughts of them as she sat at her desk, earning six figures but suddenly not so sure she was doing the right thing with her life.

"I was looking forward to talking to these women," said Cohen, who had taken a year off after graduate school to move back to Albany and tend to her mother, who died of cancer in 1993. "I realized I didn't live through my cancer to just go back to this job."

The Concept

The concept for Girl On The Go, the company Cohen wound up founding a year ago, offered a simple fix. It was so obvious, in fact, that Cohen was surprised no one else had thought of it. If people crave dignity and privacy when they're wig shopping, what better place to find that than in their own home?

"People get groceries delivered to their homes, they get home gym training sessions," said Cohen. Some women undergoing chemo can even feel nauseated by the smells of beauty salons, where many wig shops are located. "As stressful as wig shopping is when you have cancer, why can't they do that at home, too?"

Cohen started her company in New York City, creating a Web site and leaving fliers in oncology offices. To date, she's served around 100 clients and is working to get more insurance companies to cover her services.

"It was done in my home, it was private, and it was done with a lot of care. It was a very positive experience," said 68-year-old Zelda Jarkovsky, who lives in Westchester County and is one of Cohen's customers. Jarkovsky recently underwent chemotherapy and surgery for lung cancer.

At her parents' home in Troy, 25-year-old Stephanie Rosamilia sits, her frail body folded into a wide chair, an oval mirror propped nearby. She tips her head forward and tugs on a new wig, adjusting it as she checks her reflection in the mirror. "This is the Meg, after Meg Ryan," Cohen tells her.

"It's definitely a look," offers Rosamilia's mom, Peg.

"Not my look," says Rosamilia, who was rediagnosed with cancer and recently began chemotherapy again. Wig not her style? No problem. Cohen, who splits her time between her home in Manhattan and Albany, has brought 15 wigs for Rosamilia to try today, as well as more lightweight and "easygoing" options -- such as hair sewn into a bandanna -- that she devised herself while undergoing cancer treatment.

"In the hospital, a wig would get so tangled, and in the hospital people would walk in without knocking and I didn't want them to see me like that," Cohen said.

Also on hand today is Pam Ventressa, Girl On The Go's full-time stylist for upstate. She'll cut any wig to style -- a service Cohen calls "Just Like You" because "women want to look like themselves. Not kinda like themselves," Cohen said. Prices for synthetic wigs run up to $500, depending on length; natural hair wigs can run much higher. Prices at Girl On The Go are comparable with those at most wig shops; the in-home consultation fee is $35.

Trying it on

As she tries on wigs, Rosamilia shares a story about how, when she was told she'd lose her hair, there was a sort of pat assumption in medical circles that she'd simply don a turban. Cohen nods her head, listening.

She's had the same experiences: Walking in and out of a wig shop, seeing people watch you, knowing you're sick. Wearing a wig out and wondering: Do they know?

Ultimately, Rosamilia settles on a light brown "Lauren," named after Lauren Bacall but really closer to something Jennifer Aniston sported a few years back. Sporty. Sleek yet shaggy.

Rosamilia remembers one of the times she wore a new wig out. An old friend exclaimed how much she liked the new haircut.

"I had to say, 'You know it's a wig, right?' " Rosamilia said, laughing.

Next time, though, she might just keep that part to herself.

For more information about Girl On The Go, visit http://girlonthego.biz

Stephanie Earls can be reached at 454-5761 or by e-mail at searls@timesunion.com.